I hate to break it to you, but we have a sell-by date. We're perishable, dude. Highly perishable.
I spoke these words to a friend as we meandered down the street engaged in another one of our snarky, rapid-fire dialogues about how we ended up here. Here being the waning years of our twenties without being firmly established on solid career paths and without appropriate grown-up milestones (marriage, kids, home ownership) in our cross-hairs. We've known each other forever, so it felt almost as if we were 17 again (but we're both so much cooler now) and wondering what we were actually going to do with our whole lives in front of us. Except we're not 17 and our grace period for a To Be Determined future is rapidly running out. Comforting, non?
I'm not talking about a sell-by date in romcom terms - landing Mr. Right and having babies post-haste (although the gendered nature of the quarter-life crisis is an issue I will address in a future post) - but with respect to the expectation by potential employers and society at large that you have your act together by a certain age.
There's precious little room for reinvention in the American working life. In large part, decisions made as a teenager determine the course of your career. At 16, I thought I was going to be an author. At 17, I thought I was going to be a public relations specialist (if you know me personally, the eye-rolling is totally warranted). At 19, it was a journalist. At 21, a world-saving United Nations bigwig. I am none of these things, but my resume still bears evidence of these well-intentioned tangents. Each decision had the side effect of precluding future decisions in other directions. Bet your guidance counselor didn't tell you that. By choosing to do X, you're not simply passing on Y in the moment, you are, in many cases, sealing your life off from the option of ever going after Y.
It comes down to two factors - finite resources and an unwieldy history. In the case of the latter, we are defined at a glance (for better or worse) by prospective employers and the world at large by the jobs we've held and the education we've received. What you have done dictates what people see you as capable of doing in the future. Not fair, but true. And the flexibility to change directions, ask for a do-over, or make course corrections decreases as the years speed past. As you age, a varied work history is no longer seen as a product of necessity or a voyage of self-discovery, but a sign of commitment-phobia or the dreaded flakiness.
And even if you could reinvent yourself sans judgmental repercussions, who has the the resources to do so? Who can spare the time and has the ability to shelve existing obligation (family, etc.) to drop out of the workforce to go back to school for retraining and a fresh start? And even if time isn't an object, what about the cost? I don't know anyone in their twenties who has been squirreling away a slush fund in the event that they are visited in a dream by the ghost of Max Weber informing them of what their true calling is.
Rock? Meet hard place. Welcome to the reality of coming of career age in post-millennial America.